The Ghost Brigades, 2006
Written by John Scalzi
384 pages (mass-market paperback)
Kurt Vonnegut once said that he figured since his books cost about as much as a six-pack of beer, and he figured they should provide about as much entertainment. To my mind, there aren't a whole lot of authors out there working today who seem to adhere to that kind of mentality better than John Scalzi -- he's certainly not where I go for mind-bending SF concepts or beautiful prose, but damn is he entertaining. Which I think is pretty much exactly where Scalzi wants to be.
The Ghost Brigades is the sequel to Old Man's War, which was a nice rollicking military SF story with a nice hefty dose of humor. OMW's pace was a bit uneven, though, and the story lacked a clear throughline and seemed more like just a series of events that happened to the main character. That was fine, of course, but the sequel is a lot more focused on a specific storyline with a beginning and end. Scalzi seems to have been helped by the decision to make TGB a third-person narrative with shifting perspectives instead of the first-person narrative of OMW, for it allows him to give a lot of the background information important to the plot more clearly than in the first novel.
The plot involves a neuroscientist whose body is discovered with a shotgun blast through its skull. Investigation reveals that the body is a clone that likely never even achieved consciousness -- the scientist, Charles Boutin, has faked his own death and is now a traitor to the human race. Boutin managed the technically-daunting task of recording his own consciousness before leaving, however, and another clone body is grown so that the consciousness can be placed inside. For complicated reasons the clone is designed to be a part of the Ghost Brigades, a group of supersoldiers built out of the genetic material of dead enlistees of the normal space forces. Much of Old Man's War was devoted to the recruitment and training of its protagonist, and the sequel spends some of its length similarly, showing how the newly-grown clone Jared Dirac (which is the name given to the soldier built on Boutin's body) is trained to be a soldier.
The plot allows the novel to do a bit of philosophical speculation on the nature of identity and of consciousness, which seems to fit this narrative a lot better than similar material in OMW. In many ways I see The Ghost Brigades as a kind of "re-do" of stuff that almost, but didn't quite, work in the first book, and so I got a sense of deja vu reading the second novel. This isn't to say that this is a retread, but rather than Scalzi was using his improved skills as a novelist to explore similar issues.
I began this by saying that Scalzi is a great entertainer, and that's ultimately what comes through in this novel. He keeps the pace brisk and the philosophy never overwhelms the story, even while being interesting on its own. There's plenty of humor to be found, although the story has wide-reaching consequences for the characters, and it's above all never boring. I read through TGB in about four hours before work one day, and for the price of a sixer of beer I think I got a really good value. A short story set in the same universe as Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades can be found here -- if you like that story you'll probably like the novels to about the same degree. It's a tightly-written, fun book that even has a couple of nice emotional moments, but I find that I just don't have a lot to say about it. I'll definitely read the other two books in the series when I'm looking for a good read, but I think I'll stop this review here.